Where America Went To Play... A Day At Coney Island

May 28, 2010

Coney Island, located in the borough of Brooklyn along the Atlantic Ocean, was originally separated from the mainland, being the end of a series of land bars. An open, wind-swept piece of land, early settlers had little use for it. The Dutch called it Konijn Island ("Rabbit Island").
Around 1820, the well-to-do of Manhattan discovered the island’s beaches and fishing delights. The first hotel was erected in 1829, and within 15 years pavilions and bath houses abounded. Following the Civil War, newly constructed roads and a railroad line connected Coney to the mainland, the intervening ocean spaces eliminated by landfill.
The first roller coasted arrived in 1884; the Ferris wheel in the 1890’s. Thus began Coney’s Island’s rapid development into America’s most famous amusement park. Actually, in its heyday, Coney Island comprised three huge independent parks surrounded by a variety of other small parks, concessions, and miscellaneous attractions. The place was a bedlam of noise and confusion. Surf avenue, the main thoroughfare, was always congested with thick, thronging crowds during the summer season.
Each of the major components of old Coney Island - Steeplechase Park, Luna Park, and Dreamland - has its own fascinating story.
Steeplechase Park
Steeplechase Park was built in 1897. It consisted of many carny type rides and other entertainment lures, all surrounded by iron tracks upon which paying customers rode wooden horses in a mock race. In time, Steeplechase Park covered 15 acres. Like the phoenix of ancient legend, it rose several times from the ashes of destructive fires, bigger and grander after each resurrection. Eventually five acres of the park became a pavilion under a roof of steel and glass.
It closed down in 1964, a mere shell of its former self, and became, of all inglorious things, a parking lot!
Luna Park
Luna Park, located across the street from Steeplechase Park, was considered in 1903 at a cost of over $700,000. It boasted of aerial swings, chute-the-chutes, a trip to the moon, and other fantasy joy rides. Elephant rides, carnival acts, and theatrical presentations - most vaudeville - helped to entertain visitors.
Luna Park closed in 1944, its life prolonged by the huge influx of servicemen, passing through New York during World War II. A few concessions and rides survived another five years, when a fire completely wiped everything out.
Dreamland opened its gates on May 15, 1904. The major owner was New York State Senator William H. Reynolds who, in alliance with other politicians, came into possession of land on the waterfront. Conceived on a larger scale than anything that had gone before it, Dreamland cost well over $3 million.
The focal point was a 375-foot high, illuminated white tower. One million electric light bulbs, spread throughout the park, turned night into day. The major attraction was a fantastic sideshow that draw upwards of 30,000 people daily. It boasted of a menagerie of freaks, novelties, and the unusual. From around the world, Samuel Washington Gumpertz, the side show’s talent scout, gathered his human oddities.
Dreamland also had Lilliputia, a wondrous miniature village housing 300 midgets. It boasted of a circus, theater, and daily military parades.
Hell Gate, where for a thin dime you could take an imaginary trip to the dark underworld, a miniature Bowery and Pike’s Peak, crammed full to overflowing with concession booths and shops, were other stellar attractions.
On May 27, 1911, Dreamland burned to the ground. Underinsured, the spectacular fun spot was never rebuilt.
Final Days
The entire Coney Island amusement complex annual attracted millions of visitors during the summer-long season. Carousels, roller coasters, and all sorts of giant rides, sandwiches in by hundreds of concession stands, were found there.
During the 1930’s Coney Island, like nearly every other amusement park in the country, began declining, as people discovered the wonderful freedom the automobile provided. By the 1970’s, only a few rides and some booths were left.
Collecting Coney Island
Though there are many old-time mementos of Coney Island to be collected - decorated mugs, posters, keepsake pillows, figural spoons, souvenir photo booklets, photos, etc. - by far the largest and least expensive collectible today is picture postcards. These were published for sale to visitors as souvenirs or to mail to friends, relatives, Coney Island, the ultimate tourist attraction of its era, was most likely the greatest postcard bazaar in the country. A bit more than 1,200 different cards were produced from the 1890’s to the 1950’s, with the total output into the millions of copies.
Nearly every view card publisher in the Northeast was involved in printing and selling Coney Island scenes. These concentrated on the giant rides, attractions, and crowd scenes. Individual restaurants, such as Feltman’s Deutschland Garden, also published a small number of advertising postcards.
The earliest Coney Island postcards date to the late Victorian era, the 1890’s, when such firms as H.A. Rost Printing and Herman Kohle depicted entertainment and beach scenes.
Raphael Tuck & Sons, the British giant whose merchandise was marketed in this country through their large New York City branch, produced the loveliest of all Coney Island postcards. Tuck’s were artist-drawn and sold in packets as six-card sets.
Illustrated Post Card Company, New York, sold several hundred different color and black-and-white scenes from 1905 to 1914, making them the most prolific. Detroit Publishing Company, beginning in 1901, printed nearly 50 different. And I. Stern, of Brooklyn, produced some interesting black-and-whites, such as "Cash Girls," Promenade Showing Entrance to Luna Park," and "Pike’s Peak Railway."
Other important publishers include P. Sander, S. Langsdorf, Ullman Manufacturing Company, Photo & Art P.C. Company, Souvenir Post Card Company, Theochrom Company, and H.C. Leighton Company. Photographic studios on the park grounds took photos of people against Coney Island backdrop scenes and printed the resulting black-and-white real photos on fancy "Coney Island" postcard stock.
Picture postcards are the largest single source of images we have of the good old days of Coney Island and of a time and era which considered a day at Coney to be the highlight of the summer. They and other remembrances of New York’s famed amusement park help recall all the fun and joy millions of folks enjoyed in the early years of the 20th century.


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